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Don't Smile — On Safari in Botswana

Alumna learns the lessons of Mother Nature up close and personal on an ecotourism trip to southern Africa.

by Jenny Hontz

Video: On Safari in Botswana — Northwestern alumna Jenny Hontz (J93) describes her excursion to Botswana, a place of "inspiration and renewal." She saw an incredible variety of wildlife — including a pair of mating lions — and got more in tune with nature. See more videos from Northwestern News.

The lions were just 10 feet away from our unarmed, open-air safari jeep. And they were mating.

My friend Heather Moosnick (C94) and I had been searching for this amorous pair ever since we'd arrived at Xigera Camp in Botswana's Okavango Delta three days earlier. A couple other guests had already spotted them twice, but it was the final game drive on our last day at the camp, and we had all but given up.

That's when our guide turned the corner and slammed on his brakes to avoid running over the two frisky felines embracing right next to the road. Fortunately they were so absorbed in their own little lion love bubble they barely noticed our presence. After mating every 20 minutes for four days without eating or sleeping, they were not about to be distracted from the task at hand by a group of snap-happy nature enthusiasts.

This wasn't the only intimate animal encounter during our weeklong adventure with Wilderness Safaris last January. It was the rainy season in Botswana, and new life was springing up all around us. Baby antelope, buffalo and ostriches all traipsed behind their mothers. An entire family of baboons even headed toward us in camp one day as we walked back to our tent. The guides had warned us baboons could be dangerous, so we backed up as they advanced.

"Don't smile," Heather said. "They see teeth as a sign of aggression." I was so excited that I couldn't possibly hold back, so I covered my mouth with my hands and then laughed out loud as the father hopped on the mother's back and performed a primate porn show. These baboons were lovers, not fighters, and modesty is clearly a byproduct of evolution.

Truth be told, all this in-your-face fertility was bittersweet for me. The impetus for this trip, after all, had been to lift myself out of grief after losing a pregnancy at the halfway mark three months earlier. I had always wanted to go on safari in Africa, and I figured it was probably something I wouldn't do with a baby in tow. Heather, my former college roommate, was between jobs and happy to join me while plotting her next career move.

If you're looking for inspiration and renewal, Botswana — arguably the most beautiful place on the planet — definitely delivers. Never before have I seen such a gorgeous landscape and such an incredible collection of animals in the wild. While visiting three different camps during the course of a week, we wandered into a field of 50 zebra and antelope that smacked of an enchanted fairy tale. We spied giraffes munching on acacia trees, elephants lumbering into the sunset, and we got up close and personal with a group of bathing hippos that were none too happy to see us.

When we first arrived at the solar-powered Kalahari Plains Camp near Deception Valley, we were greeted by singing staff members, who offered us cool towels and fruity drinks. It was a wonderful welcome after our arduous journey in a tiny six-seat Cessna, where I practiced yogic chanting to stay calm, followed by a bumpy three-hour drive from the local dirt airstrip, from which we had to chase a family of warthogs so the plane could take off again.

The desert in January was in full bloom, yellow flowers and tall grasses rippling in the wind, birds chirping, turtles and even giant frogs playing in puddles in the road. Getting to such a remote location felt like a feat of endurance, but the payoff was spectacular. We found three endangered cheetahs in 48 hours. On one occasion an entire herd of oryx, the unusual horned antelope that inspired the myth of the unicorn, courageously chased a cheetah off into the bush.

The lions, however, were the A-list stars of the safari, and we were lucky enough to see them at all three camps on our trip. It shocked me just how close we could get. Apparently, as long as you stay in the safari vehicle, the animals don't consider you a threat, but outside the vehicle, all bets are off. Back at camp we were not allowed to walk to our tents alone at night.

At the Duba Plains camp, where two lion prides frequently battle a 1,000-head herd of African savannah buffalo, our camp was right in the middle of predator territory. In fact, lions wandered past our tents one day while we were out looking for them. Game drives feel very much like hunting excursions, with our guides tracking every footprint and turning into the wind to pick up a scent.

We bounced along for hours one day without finding anything more than some fancy antelope, but then suddenly, while scanning the vast landscape through my binoculars, I noticed slight movement under a faraway bush. The alpha male lion with his regal mane was lounging in the distance with a pair of female lions. The hunt was a success. Of course we shot them with cameras rather than guns, like jungle paparazzi.

Duba Plains used to be a hunting camp before Wilderness Safaris took over and transformed it into a photo safari destination. In fact, the company, which reintroduced rhinos into Botswana, considers itself a conservation organization as much as a tour operator. A member of the Okavango Community Trust rode along on all our Duba Plains game drives, gathering information about animal behavior to help the government manage the wildlife.

One staffer at the Kalahari Plains Camp, a member of the local Basarwa tribe (also known as San Bushmen), admitted that he'd been a poacher before Wilderness Safaris hired him to work with tourists. The company managed to shut the poaching industry down in some areas by getting the local population personally invested in protecting the wildlife and the land.

For that I am grateful. Visiting Botswana felt like stepping back to a time before people ruled the planet. For days we saw no other sign of human existence outside our camp, which was free of computers, cell phones and TVs. Being on safari is both relaxing and energizing. You get in sync with the slower, more natural rhythms of the day, and yet, you're always on alert to see the amazing show around you, never forgetting that at any moment you could be eaten.

Much to my surprise, though, it was empathy rather than fear that I felt for the fiercest animals in Africa. At Duba Plains the lions were fighting among themselves, and one female had killed another mother's cubs. The distraught lioness kept crying out for her missing kids, a sound that rang familiar. Nature can be so cruel, I thought, but it's also full of beauty and magic. Perhaps on my next visit I'll see the offspring of those lions that were mating in Xigera. Such thoughts give me hope.

Jenny Hontz (J93) is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer. She is also a member of the Northwestern magazine editorial advisory board.

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Jenny portrait
Jenny Hontz in the safari truck at the Duba Plains Camp in Botswana
Giraffes strutting along the airport runway in Duba Plains
Getting there: Travelers to Botswana must fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, before taking Air Botswana to Maun, Botswana. South African Airways flies nonstop from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Johannesburg. From Maun, a charter company will connect you to various safari camps. These flights are generally arranged by the tour operator Travel Beyond.Courtesy of CIA The World Factbook